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Questions linger around Sask. education innovation fund

Questions linger around Sask. education innovation fund
WATCH: Saskatchewan school divisions are preparing their budgets and a new innovation fund aims to help address certain classroom challenges. However, decision makers still have questions. David Baxter reports.

School divisions across Saskatchewan are seeing their largest ever operating fund from the province, but as they draft their budgets the fiscal pinch of the past two years is still being felt.

“By the time the dust settled, we ended up being about $1.1 million short, and so we’re certainly looking again at efficiencies and trying to minimize the impact on our classrooms,” Prairie Valley School Division (PVSD) director and CEO Luc Lerminiaux said.

PVSD received $675,000 more this year, bringing their operating grant to $91.3 million.

However, this comes after the 2017 provincial budget saw a $54 million overall funding cut to school division operating grants. In 2018, $30 million was restored and $26 million was added this year.

READ MORE: Education sector says Sask. budget falls short of financial pressures

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Lerminiaux attributes the shortfalls to inflationary pressures. This includes growing enrolment, staff salaries and the expected impact of carbon tax on fuel. The division covers a wide geographic area, stretching from Bethune to Whitewood, west to east.

Last year, $1.5 million was spent on bus fuel.

To address challenges in the classroom, the province introduced a $500,000 innovation fund. Education Minister Gordon Wyant said it’s a starting point to future work.

Since this fund was unveiled in the provincial budget on March 20, few concrete details on the future direction have been made public.

Regina Catholic School Division board chair Bob Kowalchuck called the ministry seeking an update on the innovation plan, prior to an interview with Global News.

“They’ve indicated it’s going to be working on student achievement and student outcomes. That’s the most detail we’ve heard so far, and depending on where that lands it could be welcome,” he said.

Kowalchuk still has questions about the fund, like how to access it and if it would involve applying for grants.

“If we look at that fund, $500,000 being offered to 28 school boards across the province, it’s going to require the ministry to make some significant decisions about how that fund is going to be used,” Kowalchuck said.

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READ MORE: Saskatchewan government restores funding to Cornwall Alternative School

Wyant said the ministry’s goal is not for this to be a top-down innovation strategy and plans on launching consultations with stakeholder groups in the near future.

“It’s not intended to fund programs, it’s not intended to support programs. It’s intended to develop those programs,” Wyant said.

“It’s kind of a blank slate because we want to make sure as we move forward and develop what our innovation looks like, perhaps how we fund education.”

Like Kowalchuck, Lerminiaux also had the impression the innovations fund would operate on a grant-like structure.

The PVSD has a handful of innovative programs they are working on, like the Grade 10, Indigenous focused “Learning from the Land”. Lerminiaux hopes the innovation plan can help expand the two-year-old program that exists at three schools.

“It involves elders and knowledge keepers, and it’s an opportunity for students to reconnect with the land,” he said.

“With the help of elders and knowledge keepers, develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.”

The program is designed for Grade 10 students because that is typically when students begin to drop-out or consider that option.

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Lerminiaux says they have seen success so far in keeping students interested in school, and a valuable step in trying to improve First Nations graduation rates.